Dogs

How Long Does an Owner Have to Claim a Lost Dog

Nothing makes you realize how much a part of your family a pet can be like having it go missing. A cold ball of fear forms in your gut. Your mind whirls with worry. Did Buddy get hit by a car? Was Buddy kidnapped? Can he find his way home on his own? If Buddy’s picked up by the city pound, do you have time to get him before they put him to sleep?

As a general rule, most states have laws mandating a minimum holding period between 3 to 7 days for pounds and shelters to give you time to find your dog. The minimum holding period is usually longer if the dog is registered or microchipped.

At the very least, there should be proof of ownership on the dog. For example, in Washington, D.C., the holding period is 5 days if the owner can be identified, but only 3 days if the owner is unknown.

You may also have to prove that you were actively searching for the dog through social media, posters, and the like, and the dog must show no signs of neglect or abuse. A state or county government may uphold the claim of a shelter or adopter to rehome your dog if there’s evidence you abandoned it or failed to take proper care of it. For this reason, it’s important to document your efforts to find your lost dog and to start looking as soon as possible.

How long a city pound or shelter must wait for you to claim a lost dog varies widely from state to state, and some have no laws on this yet.

The table below is copied from the Michigan State University’s College of Law website and is dated 2017.

StateAnimal Holding Period Law
Alabama7 days
AlaskaNo Law
Arizona72 hours, 120 if microchipped or tagged
ArkansasNo Law
California6 business days not counting day of impoundment
Colorado5 days, 3 days if the dog is deemed dangerous and not microchipped
Connecticut7 days after the date of publication the dog has been impounded
Delaware5 days
District of Columbia7 days if the owner is known, 5 days if owner unknown
FloridaNo Law
Georgia5 days after notice given to owner, 30 days if owner unknown
Hawaii48 hours
Idaho5 days excluding weekends and holidays
Illinois7 days if microchipped
IndianaNo Law
Iowa7 days
Kansas3 business days
Kentucky5 days
LouisianaNo Law
Maine6 days to hold, 8 days before euthanasia
Maryland72 hours
Massachusetts7 days
Michigan4 days, 7 days if there is evidence of ownership; no specification however if the dog must be scanned for microchip
Minnesota5 business days
Mississipi5 days
MissouriOne week
MontanaNo Law
NebraskaNo Law
NevadaNo Law
New Hampshire7 days
New Jersey7 days
New MexicoNo Law
New York5 days for unidentified dogs, 7 days if the dog is identified; 9 days if notice given to owner by mail
North Carolina72 hours
North DakotaNo Law
Ohio3 days, additional 48 hours after if requested by owner
OklahomaNo Law
Oregon5 days if owner is known; 3 days if owner unknown
Pennsylvania5 days after notice is served to owner if dog is licensed; 48 hours for unlicensed dogs
Rhode Island5 days
South Carolina5 days
South DakotaNo Law
Tennessee5 days if identifiable, 3 days if unidentifiable
TexasNo Law
Utah5 days
VermontNo Law
Virginia5 days
WashingtonNo Law
West VirginiaNo Law
WisconsinNo Law
WyomingNo Law
Credit: AnimalLawInfo

Most states authorize the impoundment of any dog found wandering outdoors without supervision or a leash, or not wearing any means of identification such as a collar or tag. These laws were enacted to control the proliferation of stray dogs, dog attacks and dog road accidents, and rabies.

In most states, police are also authorized to destroy dangerous dogs on the spot if necessary.

To recover an impounded dog, you must contact the pound or shelter and provide proof of ownership, pay impoundment fees, and if your dog is unregistered you may also have to pay a fine.

If your dog has no anti-rabies vaccination tag, you may also have to provide proof of vaccination; if the dog is unvaccinated you may have to pay for vaccination as well.

If you have an aggressive dog, make doubly sure it is kept indoors or safely behind a fence at all times. Otherwise, you risk having the dog picked up, or worse, shot on the spot.

To maximize your chances of recovering your dog should it get lost, make sure your dog is identifiable and carries your contact information, at the very least your mailing address, and put up lost notices on social media and the neighborhood as soon as possible.

These establish ownership and that you’re making an effort to recover your dog, which can be used to dispel claims that you abandoned it. This is particularly important nowadays, with dog abandonment rising to the point that pounds and shelters are often so full they’ve no choice but to cull unclaimed dogs.

Having your dog carry proof of ownership is an absolute must. It not only gives the means to find or contact you if your pet is found, but it also gives you more time to find and claim the dog. At the very least, your dog should have a collar bearing his name and your contact information.

Also make sure to register your dog, as this gives you better and clearer rights in case of loss, theft, or accidental adoption by strangers who thought your dog was abandoned. In some states, proof of registration extends the holding period for lost dogs.

The best means of identification however is the microchip.

Dogs have a talent for getting their collars off, but a microchip lies beneath the skin and can only be removed by surgery. Microchips are implanted in a very quick and simple procedure that you can have done on Buddy’s next checkup with the vet, or when you get your pet vaccinated or neutered.

A GPS tracker will allow you to know your dog’s location at all times. While these are something of an investment, requiring the purchase of a tracker device plus subscription to a GPS tracking service, they’re useful for a dog with wanderlust or talent for escape, or if you live out in the countryside.

Whistle Go Explore – Health & Location Tracker for Pets

The Humane Society recommends filing immediate reports with the local government or police department, and with all shelters within a 60-mile radius of your area. Try to give a recent photo of your pet. If you believe your dog was stolen, file a police report.

Post lost pet notices on social media such as Facebook within 24 hours of finding that your pet is missing. This online search is very important. It reaches a lot of people immediately, allows quick response, and because the post is time-logged, it legally establishes your efforts to find the missing dog.

Search for the Facebook pages or websites of your local pound, shelters, and animal welfare organizations and find out how to post lost-pet notices there. Check our page where we put Lost and Found Facebook pages for each state.

Print out lost-pet posters with a recent photo of your dog and put them up at your residence’s gate or lobby, and around the neighborhood. Make sure the photo is clear and shows any distinguishing marks of your pooch. For legal purposes, keep a copy of your poster and a location photo of an actual poster in place.

lost dog
Image credit: Canva

Walk, drive, or bike around the neighborhood several times a day.

Call your pet periodically.

Ask neighbors, mail, and delivery personnel if they’ve seen your dog. Because dogs will always be drawn to food, also try asking the staff of any neighborhood food trucks, stalls, or other food establishments.

Searching by bicycle is ideal, as it allows you to cover a lot of ground while at the same time your body’s exposure to the environment allows your scent to be easily detected by your dog. If your dog is of a small breed you can easily carry him home in the bike’s pannier.

Carry a leash and proof of ownership with you including pictures of the dog, and treats to lure Buddy back if necessary. If the dog has been missing for more than a day, you may also want to bring a drinking bowl and a bottle of clean water for it.

If you suspect Buddy has gotten into an accident or fight, you may also want to bring a first aid kit, particularly if you’re out in the countryside where sources of help are few and far between. If you live in an area with a feral dog problem, carry the first aid kit plus protection for yourself such as pepper spray.

In the end, though, prevention is always better than the stress of having to search for a missing dog for days.

Keep Buddy from getting easily lost by familiarizing him with your neighborhood’s sights, sounds, and scents through long walks, let him socialize with the neighbors and their dogs and keep him indoors during thunderstorms, fireworks displays, and other potentially panic-inducing events.

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